December 2020 Wrap-Up

The Woodlanders [1887] by Thomas Hardy ★★★★★

In this novel by Thomas Hardy, Grace Melbury is torn between her feelings for simple farmer Giles Winterborne and her emotions towards sophisticated doctor Edred Fitzpiers. Evoking the beauty of rural life and nature, Hardy paints in his story a powerful image of imperfect characters who find themselves in circumstances beyond their immediate control. Themes of unbridgeable class divide, marriage confines and the negative effects of growing industrialisation all feature in this great novel by Hardy.

Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death [1985/1998] by Yoel Hoffmann ★★★★★

I cleansed the mirror/of my heart – now it reflects/the moon [Renseki, 1789];

“A tune of non-being/filling the void:/spring sun/snow whiteness/bright clouds/clear wind” [Daido Ichi’i, 1370].

Japan has always stood unique in the world in its attitudes towards death, including death taboos and rituals, and there was a centuries’ old tradition in Japan to write “death/final farewell poems” (jisei). This well-researched book compiles these poems written by both traditional haiku writers and zen monks, and some of the poems in the book have been translated to English for the first time. If poems by zen monks are full of (hidden) meaning and profound philosophy, poems by traditional haiku poets are more evocative. The book is a “must-read” for anyone interested in Japanese haiku (a type of short form poetry) or Zen Buddhism (because the introduction by the author also elucidates on many complex Zen Buddhism concepts, quoting direct sources and providing numerous examples).

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Review: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth [1905] – ★★★★1/2

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” [Ecclesiastes 7:4].

In this book, Lily Bart, a young woman from once aristocratic but now impoverished family, has reached her twenty-ninth year without finding a husband. Her beauty and financial resources declining, she notices changes in the society’s perception of her. Miss Bart, free-spirited, fun-loving, popular and, in her own words, “horribly poor – [but] very expensive] [1905: 12], soon faces an unenviable position worsened by the fact that she still loves shopping, jewellery and luxury. To what extent can she still count on the kindness of others to survive in the world that is increasingly becoming unforgiving and even hostile, full of social traps and intrigues? Considered scandalous upon its release, but converted Wharton into a successful author virtually overnight, this satire on New York City’s high society through the in-depth portrayal of a modern and increasingly fragile woman conveys the sheer pathos of a situation whereby individual willpower and the independence of spirit find themselves at odds with societal demands and expectations.

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Ludwig van Beethoven: 250 Years – Sonata “Pathetique”

17 December 2020 marks 250 years since the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven (he was baptised on 17 December 1770, but his real date of birth was probably 16 December 1770). Considered by many to be the greatest composer who has ever lived, Beethoven composed some of the world-famous classical music compositions, from Piano Sonata No. 14 (“Moonlight Sonata”) to “Emperor Concerto”. I would like take this opportunity to share one of his masterpieces – the beginning of “Sonata Pathetique”, No. 8. My favourite performance of this piece is by Vladimir Ashkenazy at the University of Essex in Colchester in 1972.

My 5 Most Anticipated Books of 2021

This is a list of five books which I am eager to read in 2021. As usual, I am drawing attention to books from different genres: (i) literary fiction; (ii) non-fiction; (iii) thriller; (iv) dark mystery/horror; and (v) historical fiction.

I. Klara & The Sun [2021] by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is the first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro since he won his Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017. The Penguin Random House says on its website that this new novel “tells the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who, from her place in the store, watches carefully the behaviour of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her. Klara and the Sun is a thrilling book that offers a look at our changing world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator, and one that explores the fundamental question: what does it mean to love?“. Obviously, my expectations are sky high regarding this book and I think Ishiguro can pull this one off beautifully since he previously distinguished himself as the author of a literary “dystopia” Never Let Me Go [2005] and his books often emphasise the pains of love and missed opportunities. My only hope is that he would not follow the path of Ian McEwan and his Machines Like Me [2019] and keep his narrative “grounded” and “subtle”.

Klara & The Sun is released on 2 March 2021.

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Recommendations to Boost Christmas Spirit!

I haven’t done a post of this nature before, but this year I have been very much in the mood for Christmas-related things, activities, videos and posts (especially given how stressful this year has been given the still-ongoing global…health situation). In this post, I would like to suggest a number of (i) books, (ii) films, (iii) animations, (iv) music and (v) ambience videos to boost everyone’s Christmas spirit and hopefully make the holidays even cosier/happier! I am limiting myself to three recommendations for each of the categories.

  • Books: (i) Hercule Poirot’s Christmas [1938] by Agatha Christie – I love reading mysteries come Christmas time because of the atmosphere of cosiness. This book by the Queen of Crime is a wonderful one to get anyone into the festive spirit since the events in the book take place over a Christmas Eve; (ii) A Surprise for Christmas: And Other Seasonal Mysteries (British Library Crime Classics) [2020] – I have not read this one yet, but am planning to do so very soon and have heard very good things about it. The book contains stories by Julian Symons, G. K. Chesterton, Carter Dickson, Martin Edwards and others, and they all revolve around Christmas time: “A Postman murdered while delivering cards on Christmas morning“, “A Christmas pine growing over a forgotten homicide”, etc.; (iii) The Night Before Christmas [1831] by Nikolai Gogol. This classic tale is about the adventures of Vakula, the blacksmith, as he battles the devil. The devil stole the moon above the village of Dikanka, and the blacksmith and the devil compete for the heart of the same beautiful young girl.
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Review: The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

The Woodlanders [1887] – ★★★★★

In this novel, Grace, an impressionable, recently-educated girl, “who has been around cultivated folks” arrives home to a small village of Little Hintock after a long absence and to the delight of her father Mr Melbury, a timber merchant. She soon rekindles her friendship with her childhood sweet-heart Giles Winterborne, an apple and cider farmer. However, as soon as she does so, she also notices a much more promising suitor who starts to intrigue her more than anyone else in this world: an educated, ambitious and “irresistible” doctor Edred Fitzpiers. Thomas Hardy’s narrative is like an exquisite painting created in a style of Old Masters, where money, ambition, sophistication, self-interest and the excess of knowledge clash violently with rural simplicity, kindness, loyalty and naïve mentality. The beauty/mastery of the prose is matched by the gripping plot full of vivid characters and psychological nuances. Emphasising the unbridgeable gap between the social classes and drawing attention to the iron confines of a marriage, while evoking the atmosphere of the old rural England, Hardy created with The Woodlanders the work that is on a par with some of his greatest literary creations – Tess of the d’Urbervilles [1891] and Far from the Madding Crowd [1874].

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Joe Hisaishi: Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) & Spirited Away (2001)

Joe Hisaishi (6 December 1950) is Japanese composer, probably best known for his music collaborations with director Hayao Miyazaki on various Studio Ghibli films. Yesterday he turned 70 years old and I think it is a perfect time to share a couple of his best-known compositions for animations: Merry-Go-Round of Life from Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and The Name of Life from Spirited Away (2001).

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